A major, must-see exhibition exploring an underappreciated but essential artist is on display for the next month at the Phillips Collection.
“An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis” brings a central figure of the artistic movement alive to Washington D.C. The first exhibition in the U.S. devoted to De Nittis, the Phillips Collection’s effort to restore his place in the historical narrative of impressionism is a smashing success. It includes an array of stunning images of Mount Vesuvius erupting, vibrant city scenes packed with interesting characters and an array of atmospheric skies and shocks of color.
The show is an international collaboration with the Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, the city of Barletta, Italy and the region of Puglia with the Fondazione Pino Pascali. It highlights the key relationships that defined the artist’s short life. De Nittis died at 38 of a stroke. Prior to his passing he was an active member of the 1870s Paris art scene and a friend of more well-known figures of the time, such as Degas, Manet and Caillebotte. Etchings, monotypes and paintings—from De Nittis as well as some of his famous friends—populate the show to create a vivid sense of the transformative decade and reestablish De Nittis as a key figure within it.
“I hope this exhibition will open some minds of the viewer, of the audience, of the art historians,” said guest curator Renato Miracco.
Miracco, both an independent curator and curator of the Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, noted this exhibition offers the opportunity to “explain how De Nittis was important for the impressionist movement, what he was bringing inside the impressionist movement [and] where he came from.”
“This is a really perfect exhibition that will fit into the legacy of Duncan Phillips [the founder of the Phillips Collection]. Duncan Phillips didn’t have any paintings of De Nittis, but if you read his writings he was always keen to discover new artists, new movements, new contributions,” added Miracco on why the Phillips Collection was the right place to host this exhibition.
The show zeros in on two significant elements found in the artist’s career: his “lifelong interest in atmosphere and the rhythms of urban life,” according to the museum. His work explores everything from the leisure class of Paris to technological shifts of the era and the question of how best to capture outdoor scenes on canvas. Even as he develops his impressionist’s eye, De Nittis harkens back to his early love of precision, line and realism. It’s fascinating within the course of the exhibition to see that meld later with a more impressionist approach to painting.
De Nittis’ love of depicting conversation—observing how people talk to each other, what they wear and who’s talking to who—is depicted most strikingly in “In the Wheat Field,” a lush and warm painting of two women in conversation. The canvas is drenched in light. Red poppies explode throughout the small painting, drawing the eye. You feel the heat. Meanwhile, in “Approaching Storm,” the gray clouds are just as central as the bright burst of yellow, the luminosity of the painting. Memories, light and atmosphere mingle.
An engine carves through the landscape in “The Train Passes,” an arresting image of modernity that evokes Turner as much as the French impressionists of De Nittis’ circle. Within this frame, De Nittis interrogates how progress and industry emerge from a cloud of smoke. He depicts peasant women in the foreground as unconcerned, adapting.
Some of the most fascinating paintings showcase views of urban Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. These seem to meld his early focus on precision with his later fluidity and emphasis on light and color. “The Place du Carrousel: The Ruins of the Tuileries in 1882” and “The Place des Pyramides, Paris” are infused with the lingering scars of the war. His cityscapes are precise and realistic. They are filled with people and explore the spontaneity of the street. The scenes are informal, but constructed with an artist’s eye.
De Nittis also dove into his interest in light and atmosphere, fog and damp, in London. “Westminster Bridge (Study)” captures the movement, vibrancy and darkness of the city, evoking the changeable weather and the seemingly permanent monuments that define its skyline. Here—and in so many of his works—bold compositions make light central above all else. In “The National Gallery and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London),” he highlights the church bathed in light and the pillowy clouds above, rather than the famous museum he has shunted off to the side.
In his paintings of Mount Vesuvius, De Nittis depicts a natural disaster and the people enthralled—or trapped—in its wake. The precise, carefully painted horses fade into a mass of people in carriages descending the volcano, a blur of fluidity. In these visions of cloud, smoke and fire, precision meets impressionism, sharp meets haze.
“De Nittis was the first one who was depicting the eruption of the Vesuvio, of the volcano, and he was so close to the volcano he was risking his life… just to capture the atmosphere of the Vesuvio. That was really something few artists can do, to risk their lives to capture an effect. It’s really something—it’s really moving to me,” Miracco told The Diplomat.
Out of the flames, viewers will find themselves next captivated by De Nittis’ lovely leisure scenes—ice skating, boating, sitting in a park. In 1869, the exhibition notes, he moved from a focus on painting peasants and poor women to depicting the haute bourgeoisie. There’s a newfound fascination with status as he enters the late stage of his career.
He captures the feeling of seasons quite well in “In the Wheat Field” and in the painting next to it, “Winter Walk,” a canvas dripping in icy vibes. There’s a chill in the air, but the focus is on the woman’s fashion: a striking black outfit with blue accents. She stares out from the painting with empty eyes, waiting to be filled by the viewer.
In the works just before his death, De Nittis found himself occupied by interiors and plein-air scenes. There’s a quiet but memorable scene of his wife and son in a hammock that celebrates the simple joys of good weather and dappled light. The large-scale format for such a small, intimate, normal moment invites comparisons to the drama of the previous room’s Vesuvius eruptions in the same format.
In addition to paintings, there are painted fans, collages and other works. The exhibition also touches on his passion for Japanese art and the broader interest in Japonisme that exploded in France at the time.
What the Phillips Collection does so well is show that no artist lives in a bubble—the work emerges from De Nittis’ friendships, his travels, the political discussions of the day and the incredible natural and technological events that transformed the era.
“An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis” is at the Phillips Collection through Feb. 12.